Monday, February 10, 2014

The Lenses Through Which We See

I was struck today by a portion of the second lesson – 1 Corinthians 2:1-16.  The words are some of Paul’s most familiar, but they struck home with new force today: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  He continues: “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

Paul was no dummy.  A Hellenistic Jew, he was well aware of the popular thought and philosophies which permeated the first century Mediterranean world.  He was trained as a Pharisee and knew the Law through-and-through.  Yet, it was none of that which was primary in his mind.  Something else served as the lenses through which he saw the world surrounding him.
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Many of us wear glasses.  They are necessary for us to see clearly.  I cannot read the text messages on my cell phone without them.  Those glasses – those optical lenses – are one of my favorite metaphors for faith.  Faith is the lens through which we Christians see the world.  Those lenses are not rose-colored, but they do show us different dimensions of our existence.

Perhaps the most profound for Christians is the experience of standing at the grave of a loved one.  Our burial liturgy includes these words, as we face a casket, a vault, a hole in the ground, and a mound of dirt off to the side: “All of us go down  to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

That is a remarkably counter-intuitive perspective. Our lenses of faith cause us to perceive things differently.  That is the nature of faith.

 But there is more.  And there was much more for Paul.
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 Paul had been well-educated as a boy and young man. In spite of all that he had learned, and in spite of his broad education, there were a different set of lenses through which he interpreted the world.  For him, the cross of Jesus Christ defined the world in an entirely different way.  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ – the one he had encountered in a blinding light on the road to Damascus – changed everything for him.

For Paul, the world was different.  God’s self-offering and incarnation – his emptying of self – redefined human existence and our relationship to the Divine and one another.  Paul recognized that neither he, Apollos, Cephas nor anyone else mattered at all in light of God’s self-offering and sacrificial love in Jesus Christ.  Nothing else matters.  No categories could define us any more (slave or free, Jew or Greek, sinner or righteous). We were all beloved children of God. In fact, we all are beloved children of God.

Paul’s theology springs from the deep well of awareness of God’s love that is represented in the life and death of Jesus.  His being grasped by that recognition – literally knocked off his horse by it – radically changed the way he viewed the world and the people he encountered.

Would that we could adopt that way of seeing the world as fully as Paul.  But we do so episodically, fragmentally, sporadically. We see through a glass darkly.

In retrospect, I see how my vision has been altered – even if only occasionally.  I recently was filling my car at a convenience store near my home.  As I pumped the gas, I saw a street person approaching down the street, showing all the signs of being someone looking for a handout.  As I went into the store to retrieve my receipt, I noticed he was standing off to the side of the store, staying out of the watchful gaze of the store clerk.

As I walked out of the store, I heard him say, “Excuse me, sir.” His voice was faint, and my back was to him.  I kept walking, got in my car, and drove quickly off toward my home, a couple of blocks away.

There was something that would not let go of me, though.  Was this merely a street person, wanting a handout? An inconsequential bit of human debris who should be ignored?  Or was he something else? Was he a fellow child of God, for whom Jesus had given his life?  Was he someone who is loved and cherished by the One we do not fully know, even as I am loved and cherished?

The lenses which my faith had given me would not allow me to just delete the memory of this person from my mind.  After a few minutes at home, I gathered some money, got back in the car and drove back up to the convenience store.  After a couple of passes, I saw him standing where he had been earlier.

I drove up beside him, rolled down my window and said, “I was here just a minute ago.  I want you to have this.” I gave him a small wad of cash.  He smiled and said, “God bless you.”  Fellow children of God had connected very briefly, for just a moment.

Sadly, that was a unique experience for me.  It stands out because it is different from my usual behavior. I still see the world in a blurred way – without the clarity that Paul so clearly articulated.  I am still becoming.

 I realize it now. The lenses through which Paul viewed the world – Jesus Christ and him crucified – do not allow us to see the world as we might normally see it.  His sight was forever changed.  I hope to gain that vision bit-by-bit.